New Grounds for a New Opposition

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by Jack Random
Never has a nation, its people or indeed the nations and people of the world waited so anxiously for the coronation of a new president.  After eight years of the serial catastrophe known as the Bush administration, there has never been greater hope for real and substantial change.  After eight years of muted at best media criticism of the morally bankrupt and inept policies of the worst government in American history, rarely has there been so much criticism based on so little substance.  

Now, as the world’s attention is drawn to the tragic assault on Palestinian Gaza, where thousands of civilians are caught in the crossfire of an ancient conflict, we are reminded that events will not wait for new leadership.  Indeed, it is entirely possible that Israel’s aggressive action was initiated now in anticipation that the next American administration might not be so eager to approve.  While that possibility gives hope that the new president will at long last embrace some semblance of neutrality in Middle East policy, we are reminded as well that Obama was forced to retreat on his statement of empathy for the Palestinian cause by the powerful Israeli-American political lobby.  

It is no secret that Israel cannot act militarily without the unspoken approval of its American sponsor.  We provide the military might upon which Israel’s authority rests.  We therefore share responsibility for Israeli actions.  

It is perhaps unfair to hold Obama accountable for what no president has been able to achieve since the creation of Israel.  Not even Jimmy Carter could break the stranglehold that the Israeli lobby holds over American politics while he was president.  Yet that is precisely what we must do for there is an acceleration in historical events that cannot allow the world’s conflicts to continue as they have.  Israeli policy is heading toward apartheid and will unleash a self-destroying genocide if the conflict is not resolved in an equitable manner.  Such a resolution requires America as an honest and engaged broker.  

As it is with the Middle East, so it is with all of the major crises that await the president on the moment of his inauguration.  These are not times that will respond to mediocrity.  They are times that require greatness.  They are times that cry out for systemic and fundamental change.  Anything less will be failure and the price of failure will be steep.  

Given the stakes and the high standards by which we will judge the Obama presidency, we must hold ourselves to a higher standard of criticism as well.  

The outrage that greeted the president elect for inviting fundamentalist Rick Warren to conduct the inaugural invocation is eminently understandable but it is not of substance.  If anything, having made this concession to the fundamentalist cause in protocol, we can expect Obama to be particularly vigilant in upholding the rights of homosexual Americans.  The day will come when same-sex marriage is upheld as a constitutional guarantee but we should not hold the president accountable for reaching out to those behind the curve.  

Similarly, though we might have fantasized that Obama would appoint Howard Zinn Secretary of State and Noam Chomsky Secretary of Defense, we should neither be surprised nor overly critical that Obama has appointed centrist leftovers from the Clinton administration or military stalwarts to his cabinet.  The substance is in the policies, not in those who will enforce them, and policy proceeds from the president.  

The new president has pledged a level of responsiveness unheard of in the Bush years.  His vision is of change from the bottom up.  If we are to be effective in shaping government policy, whether as a base of support or as opposition, we must choose our battles wisely and allow others to linger on lesser issues.  

From an antiwar progressive libertarian perspective, the issues by which we should judge the new president fall into two broad categories:  Common Ground and Battleground.  

The common ground issues are those that formed the basis for our support of his presidential campaign.  They include the Iraq War, universal health care, a green economy, progressive tax reform, support for organized labor and restoration of civil liberties.  

Having won the election, we expect Obama to fulfill his pledge to end the war and occupation of Iraq.  We will accept his timeline for withdrawal but we will not accept any backsliding.  We will not accept permanent or semi-permanent military bases or a “residual” force of 30-50 thousand troops.  We will not accept a fortified green zone under American control or ongoing military operations within or beyond the borders of Iraq.  

If Obama fails to fulfill the promise of complete withdrawal by the appointed deadline, we will condemn his hypocrisy and oppose him on the streets of protest where once he found broad support.  He built his campaign on an antiwar platform and we must hold him to it.  

Similarly, we expect the Obama economic program to embrace a transition from fossil fuels to green technology.  We expect major funding for solar, wind and other renewable energies coupled with fuel efficiency and mass transit.  We do not expect and will oppose federal funding for the myths of clean coal, corn-based ethanol or an expansion of nuclear power.  

Within the first year of his administration we expect tax reform that places the burden of social programs where it belongs: on the wealthiest of Americans who have profited unconscionably during the last eight years.  

Within the first two years of his administration we expect a health care program that delivers the promise of affordable health care for all Americans.  

We expect the new president to support the Employee Free Choice Act and to oppose anti labor laws as anti American.  

We expect President Obama to restore the foundations of law and American democracy.  We expect an unqualified denunciation of the anti terrorism laws and policies that enabled our government to deny the right of habeas corpus and to engage in torture, rendition and other flagrant violations of the universal rights of humankind.  We expect the new president to lift the shadow on the nation’s character by closing Guantanamo Bay forthwith.  

These are the common ground issues.  They are nothing more than the fulfillment of promises, pledges and statements of policy that the candidate delivered on the road to winning the White House.  

By contrast, the battleground issues are those upon which we can anticipate conflict by virtue of the president elect’s stated policies or ambiguity.  They include the war and occupation in Afghanistan, Middle East policy, Fair Trade and education reform.  

We stand opposed to a policy of escalation in Afghanistan.  We remind the new president of his principled stance on diplomacy.  We ask him not to make the mistake of his predecessor by employing military might when diplomatic alternatives have neither been explored nor engaged.  We ask him to consult those military experts and indeed the American sponsored president of Afghanistan who have advocated negotiations with the Taliban and all other parties in that war torn nation.  

If we truly believe in democracy we cannot be afraid to invite all parties into the political process.  If the people of Afghanistan choose the leadership of the Taliban, as the Palestinians chose Hamas, it is not for us to overrule the will of the people.  

If America was an honest broker in an open diplomatic process, I believe we could find agreement, based on a recognition of fundamental human rights, not only in Afghanistan but also in Kashmir and the Middle East.  Beyond human rights (including the rights of women), the only concession we should require is cooperation in pursuit of justice against Al Qaeda.  

It was a mistake from the beginning to conflate Al Qaeda with Hamas and Hezbollah.  They are not the same and our refusal to distinguish them has strengthened our enemies and made our task virtually impossible.  Of course, that was the idea under the neoconservative philosophy of the Bush administration:  They wanted a conflict that would rival the Cold War to justify their imperial policies, military expenditures and defiance of international law.  

We will oppose the president’s policy in Afghanistan and push for the diplomatic approach he once championed.  

On Fair Trade we have received too many mixed signals from candidate Obama.  One day he stands for labor and environmental provisions in trade agreements; the next day he is claiming to be an advocate of Free Trade.  

Believing that trade policy is the key to economic recovery and stability in the age of globalization, we must insist that Obama take a stand:  You cannot be for meaningful international labor rights (including living wages) and also be an advocate of Free Trade – a policy built on the exploitation of labor.  That is the kind of oxymoron for which your predecessor is famous.  

We stand for Fair Trade and will oppose any effort to perpetuate the job consuming, wage diminishing, anti labor Free Trade mandate.  

On education policy we find the same kind of ambiguity.  We contrast the candidate of the Democratic primaries who expounded criticism of No Child Left Behind with the presidential candidate who seemed to embrace the testing psychosis of that law under the guise of accountability.  

We oppose NCLB and will fight for its repeal.  Education needs effective teaching; it does not need formulae for teaching to test.  Education needs funding for quality books, materials, facilities and technology.  It does not need layers of administrative overhead.  Education needs the kind of diversity that embraces every child’s natural talent, that connects that talent to a child’s interests, and that provides opportunities to develop that talent into a meaningful and rewarding career.  We need education that values artistic expression and trades as well as science and mathematics.  

There are of course a great many other issues that will test the next president.  There will be unforeseen crises both foreign and domestic.  To these we can only ask that he act wisely, responsibly and with compassion.  

Through the course of a long and trying campaign, Barack Obama has won our admiration and support but it is not unconditional.  

As informed citizens it is our responsibility to support him when he is right, to oppose him when in our judgment he is wrong, and to listen when we disagree.  We expect the president to do the same.  



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